History of the Society of Early Americanists

Some Background behind the Organization of the Society of Early Americanists

By Carla Mulford, written and revised, December 2013

Institutional memory can be forgotten and changed, depending on who is doing the telling of a history. This is my story about why I decided to organize the Society of Early Americanists and how I proceeded to do so.

I conceived the idea of the Society when I attended (to deliver a paper) the American Literature Association (ALA) meeting in 1990. I discovered that the ALA had no official space for papers on matters early American. So I approached William Scheick, who had devised (on his own initiative and his own time) the newsletter known as the American Colonial Authors Society Newsletter.  Bill’s idea was to create a newsletter that could serve as a placeholder for early Americanists at the ALA. It was an immense and generous effort that often goes unremarked. I also worked with J. A. Leo Lemay, my dissertation director and friend, who helped me negotiate with Alfred Bendixen the idea of having a society for early Americanists. To found a Society, I had to get a go-ahead from Alfred Bendixen, who had founded the ALA to host “author societies” – that he would accede to a new ALA society that would not be an author society. This seemed like no small negotiation on my part, given my untenured and “newcomer” status. About this time, I was elected to the MLA Division of American Literature to 1800, which gave me the access I needed to early Americanists. I had met several early Americanists (and friends of the field) at the legendary cocktail hours that both Leo Lemay and Everett Emerson (as editor of the journal, Early American Literature) separately hosted at the annual MLA meetings. As a newcomer, however, and as a woman in a field dominated by men, it felt sometimes difficult to be taken seriously.

It might, for some, be difficult to imagine a time before web-based servers, listserves, and the internet generally. The effort was time-consuming and labor-intensive. I applied for and received the 1,100 mailing labels that MLA made available to us (as American Literature to 1800 division leaders). I created a letter inquiring about interest in a new Society, and I stuffed and addressed the envelopes myself. This took some negotiation with my department head, because 1,100 pieces of mail is staggering, given the first-class postage required for a letter. The negotiation included my having to listen to him explain to me that he was not interested – at all – in canon reformation and considered early American literature not quite “literature” at all.

To my thinking, canon reformation plays significantly into the background of the Society.  I was the colonial editor – editing the first two sections (Am lit to 1820) – of the then very new Heath Anthology of American Literature, which was published about this time. As the colonial era editor of that anthology for its first three editions, I got to know many early Americanists. The anthology was very important to early Americanists, I believe, because it conceived of the early literature in quite a different fashion from what we early Americanists had been taught. The early sections were difficult to organize and cast a narrative around, and I was brought onto the team rather late in the preparation of the anthology. At the time the anthology came out, Paul Lauter used to remark that there would not have been a Heath Anthology had it not been that I stepped up to the plate to take on the colonial studies sections. He would introduce me at conferences this way.

I linger on that history, because it seems to me that that history plays deeply into the history of the founding of the Society, perhaps even moreso than the fact that I had been elected to the Division of American Literature to 1800. I stepped off the Heath board at the time Oxford approached me about doing my own anthology, which became Early American Writings.

To return to the letters I sent out. In response to the mailing I had made, I received just over 350 letters responding to my inquiry about interest in founding a new Society for early Americanists. Some scholars were appalled at the idea, because they feared the ALA and SEA would sap the strength of the hard-fought MLA Divisions of American Literature and, specifically, the American Literature Section. My sense is that some of the disapproval – which was very harshly voiced by two people in particular and voiced by five or six others, as well – derived from Leo Lemay’s old battles when he had worked with other Americanists to found the different MLA divisions of American literature and to organize the American Literature Section with MLA. But still, given my untenured status, it felt a bit stressful to receive personalized mail from senior scholars who thought that they could or should quash my effort to form a Society. The threat seems to have been that it might take interest away from the MLA. Given this history, you will understand how odd that seems, now, at a time when the MLA journal (Early American Literature) is merging with the SEA. Or perhaps those senior scholars were right, in the longest run. That is, perhaps the usefulness of the MLA divisions might now be overshadowed by newer organizations like the SEA.

Among the letters I received in response to my inquiry were two interesting ones from women who were, like me, relatively new to the profession. Rosemary Guruswamy and Sharon M. Harris taught at very different kinds of institutions. I thought the Society should be represented by a range of institutions. I knew Sherry Harris because I had taught at Temple University and knew people there, where she began her career as an Assistant Professor. Sherry was a very hard worker, had good people skills, and was a superior scholar in a range of fields. Rosemary was unknown to me at the time, but she had a congenial reputation among the seventeenth-century scholars I knew, and in getting to know her by telephone, I realized she had very helpful people skills and institutional support. I felt that seventeeth-century studies would need solid representation if the Society were to succeed. After initial phone calls with Rosemary and Sherry, I met the two of them for a first time at the ALA conference (I believe this was in 1992), where we decided we could work together and create a Society. We drew up the originating documents, had a meeting with Bill Scheick and Leo Lemay, and formally confirmed the founding documents. The Society was launched.

Given the absence of today’s technological infrastructure, our work was time-consuming, and it required sometimes endless work to create a situation that seemed non-threatening to those senior colleagues in the profession who doubted the capacities of three women relatively new to the profession to pull this off. Endless telephone calls. Endless and unrewarded work behind the scenes.  I discovered that the Heath was a significant help in creating interest among those newer to the profession, but it was a bugbear among those who felt territorial about the field. We were quite aware that being women in the field would put some folks off, but it did not put off the men and women of our generation who helped us create solidarity and see the formation of the Society through its roughest times.  We were among the first at the ALA meetings to put (“mere”) graduate students on our panels. It was a heady time. Rosemary and Sherry went on to make their own significant marks on the Society, as I phased out of office. Without their efforts to sustain and grow the Society, the organization would not have survived.

Additional history about the Society’s founding is available on the SEA website. I also published something years ago about the state of the profession at the time the Society was taking shape. This appeared in my brief commentary (introducing a collection of revisionist essays), “What Is the Early American Canon, and Who Said It Needed Expanding?” in Resources for American Literary Study 19 (1993), 165-73.

This commentary resulted from a couple of inquiries on the SEA listserve seeking additional background about how the Society was founded. I am grateful to Kathleen Donegan (UC, Berkeley) and Denise MacNeil (Redlands), whose gentle inquiries prompted me to write this historical reflection.

Carla Mulford
Founding President, Society of Early Americanists

December 10, 2013

Updated 12/12/13